Bill Asenjo, PhD, CRC, Freelance Writer and Consultant

Catalyst — October 2001

— Bill Asenjo, PhD, CRC

Feeling foggy? Forgetful? Can't concentrate? Cranky?

Although loss of mental acuity is most often associated with aging, it can happen to anyone. Common causes are stress, illness, injury, dehydration — not drinking enough water or drinking too much caffeine, low blood sugar or hypoglycemia, prescribed and over-the-counter medications, hypothyroidism, toxins, allergies — including food and pet allergies, and degenerative disease such as atherosclerosis, diabetes, and cancer.

Essential to maintaining a mental edge: whole-food diet with generous quantities of fruits and vegetables, nutritional supplements including herbs and hormones, essential fats (flaxseed and fish oils), stress reduction, adequate rest and sleep, physical and mental exercise.



As opposed to what we've been told, researchers recently demonstrated the brain does form new nerve cells (neurons). All the more reason to provide your brain with nutrients. Neuron regeneration relies on cell membrane building blocks like choline.

The brain has a voracious appetite for choline, required for synthesizing the key neurotransmitter acetylcholine — essential for building and maintaining brain cell membranes. Acetylcholine helps us concentrate and solve problems. Are you a bit distracted and cranky lately? Might be an acetylcholine deficiency.

Photo of eggs in carton

When taking choline, supplement with B vitamins — especially B12, B6, B5 and folic acid. While 250 mg might be sufficient for a young person (though not for those pregnant or nursing), increase dosage according to age. You'll need 1500-3000 mg a day in old age. Researchers found mild vitamin deficiencies partly responsible for diminished mental capacity among many elderly people. Vitamins B6, B12, and folic acid are often low since older individuals have less stomach acid, required to absorb these vitamins.

Vegetarians and other health-conscious people are likely to avoid the richest sources of choline — eggs and meat. To increase your choline intake consider fish. Fish, truly a "brain food," is particularly rich in choline and nucleic acids, building blocks for new cells. Cold-water fish is rich in omega-3 fatty acids, essential to sharp minds. Note that the fish-consuming Japanese have an enviably low incidence of Alzheimer's disease in spite of enjoying the longest life expectancy in the world. This argues against the mainstream belief that simply living long enough inevitably leads to Alzheimer's.

Caution: if you've never taken choline supplements, start conservatively and increase dose gradually or you might feel hyperactive or anxious. The fishy smell sometimes associated with large doses of choline disappears with 800 mcg of folic acid.


  • Alpha lipoic acid is an antioxidant and a metabolic enhancer, and it's both fat and water soluble.

  • Acetyl-L-carnitine helps metabolize food into energy and contributes to acetylcholine production.

  • Co-enzyme Q10 aids metabolism — transforming food into ATP, providing energy.

  • Vitamin E protects membranes and restores damaged neurotransmitter receptors.

  • Vitamin C is extremely important for brain function. Besides its antioxidant function, it enhances key neurotransmitter synthesis, including acetylcholine and dopamine.

  • Niacin (B3) helps manufacture neurotransmitters, including the calm-producing GABA.

  • Thiamin (vitamin B1) helps other antioxidants destroy free radicals.


  • Ginkgo is a documented cognitive enhancer, even among Alzheimer's patients. A British study on the effects of a ginkgo/Panax ginseng combination revealed significant improvement in mental function among healthy middle-aged volunteers.

  • Huperzine A, a Chinese club moss extract, increases acetylcholine. A short-term memory booster, 50-100 mcg in the morning boosts cognitive function. While it appears to be safe for special situations, daily use may cause neurotransmitter imbalance. Huperzine A should not be taken more than a few times a week at the most.

  • Vinpocetine was first introduced in Hungary to treat vascular dementia. Recently available in the United States as a promising neuroprotective and cognitive supplement, vinpocentine improves cerebral blood flow.


Pregnenolone is produced primarily in the adrenals. It is the first hormone formed from cholesterol, the raw material for all steroids.

Levels of pregnenolone diminish with age. At 75, we have only 40% the pregnenolone we had at 35. Besides aging, pregnenolone is reduced by stress, disease, hypothyroidism, and toxins. In job-performance studies, subjects reported better mood when taking pregnenolone. Like DHEA, pregnenolone provides a pleasant stimulatory effect, making one feel sharp without caffeine's wired, jitteriness.

Pregnenolone moderates enzyme activity and memory. Together with DHEA, it synchronizes neuron firing. Dimished pregnenolone makes mental function more difficult. Pregnenolone's anti-inflammatory effects may help protect against Alzheimer's disease.

Caution: Men diagnosed with prostate cancer should avoid pregnenolone because of possible androgen conversion. If taking DHEA have blood levels checked. DHEA is typically not recommended for those younger than 35.


Identify food and environmental allergies, including pets. And as in much of life, if you really like something it might not be good for you. Got a "favorite" food? You might be allergic to it. Sorry.


Your call: try meditation, yoga, volunteerism, exercise, hobbies


For more details than this article can offer see Dr. Khalsa's website


Many drugs impact mental acuity. The most common of these are known as "anticholinergic" effects, named for their effects on the nervous system — confusion, memory loss, disorientation. Many prescription drugs used to treat Parkinson's disease, depression, allergies, migraine, and irritable bowel syndrome have side effects. Failure to identify side effects can lead to use of other drugs to treat symptoms. For example, women undergoing chemotherapy for breast cancer have significantly reduced cognitive function compared with healthy controls.

An increasing number of drugs with anticholinergic potential are now available without prescription. For example, cimetidine (Tagamet), famotidine (Pepcid), and ranitidine (Zantac) are sold over-the-counter (OTC) for indigestion. Other OTC drugs causing anticholinergic effects include those for hay fever, cold and flu, sleep, and diarrhea.


Photo of a sleeping woman, seen from above

One in three Americans sleep for 6 hours or less according to the National Sleep Foundation. Americans only average 7 hours of sleep a night. Lack of sleep led 37% of those surveyed to report that daytime sleepiness interfered with daily activities. That percentage increased to 52% for shift workers.


Some historians suggest lead poisoning contributed to the Roman Empire's decline. Lead exposure is commonplace. Water is tainted by lead in old plumbing. Symptoms range from fatigue and reduced appetite to nervous system disorders. Even low levels of lead erode children's intelligence.

Aluminum is the most abundant metal in the world, and like lead it is prevalent in many foods and products — baking powder, antiperspirants, antacids, black tea, drinking water, cookware, aluminum foil, and aluminum cans. The British medical journal, Lancet, stated that aluminum may "cause slow death of aging brains."

Be good to your brain and it'll be good to you.


1O-Step Program to Optimize Your Memory. Avery Publishing, New York 1999.

"Alpha-lipoic acid: biological effects and clinical implications." Nichols, T. Alternative Medicine Review, 1997;2:177-83 [review].

"Aluminum--much ado about something." Sherrard DJ. The New England Journal of Medicine 1991;324(8): 558-9.

Brain Longevity. Khalsa, D. Warner Books, 1997. by David Perlmutter, MD. Perlmutter Health Center. Naple, FL 2000.

"Calcium-channel blockers and cognitive function in elderly people: results from the Canadian Study of Health and Aging." Colleen J. Maxwell, PhD. Canadian Medical Association Journal, 1999;161(5):501-6

"Cognitive function declines in breast cancer patients undergoing chemotherapy", July 7, 2000 Journal of Clinical Oncology;18:2695-2701.

Encyclopedia of Medicinal Plants by Anderew Chevallier, 1996

Herb Research Foundation, Boulder, CO.

"Is aluminum a dementing ion?" Lancet 1992;339: 713-14.

"Is it Alzheimers or the Drugs?" Life Extension Magazine, May 2000 by Ivy Greenwell

Mind Boosters: A Guide to Natural Supplements that Enhance Your Mind, Memory, and Mood (2000). Ray Sahelian, MD. St. Martin's Press.

"Nutritional factors in physical and cognitive functions of elderly people." Rosenberg I., Miller J. American Journal of Clinical Nutrition 1992;55: 1237S-43S.

The Superhormone Promise. Regelson W, Colman C. Simon and Schuster, 1996.

"Vitamins C and E May Protect The Aging Brain." Neurology, March 2000;54:1265-1272

© 2009 Bill Asenjo